This is going to get emotional.
When I was pregnant, I knew I wanted to breastfeed. I also knew that lots of people struggle with breastfeeding, and that I had basically no idea how it would go for me ahead of time. I wanted to believe that since breastfeeding is *natural* (I have feelings about that word, y’all) it would just work itself out. I wanted to believe that my body would know what to do! But I didn’t know for sure, and I didn’t know how it would shake out with work, and I didn’t know if I would love it or hate it. But I was determined to do my best. I told myself that I would breastfeed for a year, and then we’d check in and see what to do next.
My body, the one that I wanted to believe would know what to do? Turned out it didn’t know how to give birth. I ended up being in and out of labor for a week, miserable and exhausted, and finally having a c-section. Then, we started trying to breastfeed. Latching was almost impossible, no matter how many times the lactation consultants showed me what to do, I couldn’t get my nipple into my child’s mouth without backup for almost two whole days. We kept trying. I was scared. I was scared the nurses would sneak him formula. I was scared he would actually need formula and that my body, the body that had failed at *natural* birth (there’s that word again) would also fail at breastfeeding. Then, somehow, me and the baby both started to figure it out. My milk came in, more milk than I had ever dreamed of. It turned out my body was really awesome at one thing: breastfeeding.
I loved it. I became obsessed. I wasn’t ready to try to process my feelings about the birth, so instead I just clung to the one part of motherhood that made me feel capable and whole, and that was feeding my kid. He was an enthusiastic eater, an I never once turned him down when he wanted a snack. Then, when he was three weeks or so, my gallbladder went completely bananas. In a hellish amount of pain (anyone who has had a gallbladder attack can tell you) I first headed to a nearby emergency room. After ten hours of medical neglect, milk streaming from my breasts like great waterfalls, I left that hospital against doctor’s orders to go feed my baby. When I had another attack, I headed to a different hospital, the same one I gave birth to him at, and this time I brought him with me. In excruciating pain, I nursed him in the waiting room. On a hospital bed in a tiny room in the ER, I took turns nursing him and letting my mother and wife bottle feed him, from my minuscule supply of pumped milk (remember, he was three of four weeks old). But when they took me upstairs to the surgical department, he was not allowed to go with me. And they put me on morphine, so my milk was no longer safe for him.
So for three days, I was in the hospital, with an alarm set on my phone for every three hours. When it went off, I would ring for a nurse and ask for a breast pump. They would bring it to me, and ask cheerfully if they should store my milk for me. And I would have to hold back my tears as I explained over and over again that no, every drop of my milk had to go down the drain. At his grandparents’ house, my kid finished my pumped supply, and then some donated milk as well, and I gave the ok for him to have formula. On the day he turned one month old, I had my gallbladder removed. The next day, I went home, and I had the ok to try to nurse him again. I was terrified it wouldn’t work. I was terrified he would not remember how, would prefer the bottle, that after all I would fail at this too and now I was going to have to figure out how to navigate the world of formula.
But by some miracle, it was easy. The only problem was that my oversupply had actually gotten worse, because I was so afraid of losing my supply, I had pumped more than I needed to.
We never had a problem with breastfeeding again. I lost my job, so I was home to feed him 24/7. At four months, he decided bottles were the actual devil, so we started occasionally giving him a sippy cup. At six months old, we started solid foods (via the baby lead weaning method) but if he decreased his nursing, I didn’t notice. On his first birthday we took him out for sushi and ice cream, and he ate all of it with enthusiasm, and then asked to nurse. The waitress wrote me a nice note about how I was doing the best thing for my baby.
I didn’t dream of weaning him at one year. By that point, I was firmly in the “I’ll nurse him until he’s five, I don’t care” camp. He loved nursing, and I loved doing it. It helped me to feel useful, it helped me to feel connected to him, and it gave me much needed down time with an increasingly active toddler. He usually wanted to nurse more than I wanted to, and sometimes I complained about the frequency, but on the whole the pros outweighed the cons for me.
Then, on New Year’s Eve, when he was 19 months old, it suddenly stopped.
I still struggle to write about it. The details are that the whole family got the flu, and then he got his very first ear infection (which I also got). It hurt him to nurse, so he stopped doing it. Then he became terrified of my breasts and didn’t even want to see them. Everyone, from two lactation consultants to the nurses at the children’s hospital, told me the same thing. Most likely if he had been an enthusiastic nurser before, it was just a nursing strike, and he would come back to it as soon as he felt better. However, they all added, some children do self-wean at this age, and it’s perfectly safe and normal, and I should be ready for either outcome.
I was not ready for either outcome.
He never breastfed again.
When you wean a child, there is a huge hormonal shift that happens for the nursing parent. Typically, if you were intentionally weaning, you would try to do it slowly. But my child went from trying to nurse constantly on Friday (because he wasn’t feeling well) to not nursing at all on Saturday (because he couldn’t). My body was in shock. My hormones were out of wack. I was thrown headlong into a depression that was every bit as bad as postpartum depression, only now I had a toddler to take care of. The only positive to the experience was that it finally forced me into therapy. Slowly, my milk dried up. Slowly, the idea that he would never nurse again became normal.
I am not supposed to be sad about this. I am told over and over again that “at least you made it to 19 months, most people don’t do half that!” as though it were a contest. I am told that if he weaned then, he was ready, even though I know he weaned in sadness and anger and fear. I am told it is not about me. I am not supposed to be sad about a child weaning at 19 months, but I’m especially not supposed to be sad about it now, seven months later. It’s fine, he’s happy and healthy, we still cuddle and play and talk, he’s an amazing kid and I’m lucky to have him. Except I am sad about it. I am sad about it every single day.
I am sad about it when I see my friends breastfeed their children. I am sad about it when they notice the look in my eye and apologize to me for feeding their babies in front of me. I am sad about it when he wakes up in the night crying and I feel helpless. And I am sad about it when he sees me change my shirt, and confidently says “oh! mama MILK!” because he still remembers. I cannot turn off this sadness.
It’s World Breastfeeding Week again, and I got invited to a march for breastfeeding awareness. Reading the invite I thought “oh, I am aware of breastfeeding.” I cycled through the familiar heartache, the pain that it ended the wrong way, followed by the self loathing and fear that I am somehow selfish for feeling this feeling. The invite specified that the event is for all, not just those who are currently breastfeeding. But I know I cannot go. I can’t handle being around that much awareness right now.
I was extremely luck that I got to breastfeed my kid for as long as I did. And it’s over. And I’m still sad about that, and goddamnit, I get to feel that.
So this is for all the parents who wanted to nurse but couldn’t. This is for all the parents who had to stop sooner than they wanted to. This is for all the parents who had to stop too soon. For everyone who had to switch to formula because of work, or supply, or sleep, or whatever… for everyone who feels messed up and messy about feeding babies… I see you.
If you are all for breastfeeding awareness, and your life is currently filled with breastfeeding images, and you aren’t breastfeeding anymore, I’m with you. If your heart is breaking wide open all over again, I’m with you. If you too are sitting at your computer, crying about the fucking concept of breastfeeding, and you think no one would ever understand this pain… I’m with you.
Maybe it’s true that we still need more breastfeeding awareness on a larger scale. But the rest of you will have to forgive those of us who are desperately trying to be a little less aware of it right now.
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